James Harden hit a tightly contested step-back 3-pointer in the final few minutes, an apparent dagger and defining moment in the 2015 playoffs for the MVP candidate.
But the Rockets guard allowed himself only a quick clap in celebration.
A minute and a half later, he helped defend Tyson Chandler in the post, peeled off, swiped a pass, raced up court and dished to Terrence Jones for a dunk while knocking Monta Ellis into the stanchion – and the Mavericks out of the playoffs.
Showing its prowess on both ends of the floor, Houston won its second playoff series in 18 years with a 103-94 Game 5 win over Dallas on Tuesday. The Rockets will face the Clippers or Spurs in the second round.
“This is just the beginning,” said Harden, who led Houston with 28 points and eight assists.
I just might be.
Dwight Howard (18 points, 19 rebounds, four blocks and four steals) looks healthy and lively, and he raises the Rockets’ ceiling considerably. Harden dragged them to the No. 2 seed, but he could have carried them only so far in the postseason. A powerful inside force opens possibilities on both sides of the court.
Also helping Houston: Sound defense.
The Rockets were better defensively than offensively throughout the regular season, but they’d essentially played the first four games of this series trying to outscore the Mavericks. That style sure changed Tuesday.
A fast pace disguises just how poor the offensive output was in Game 5. The points per 100 possessions per NBA.com – 95.5 for Houston, 83.9 for Dallas – would have sandwiched the 76ers (93.0) for the NBA’s worst mark during the regular season. And Philadelphia held last place by a wide margin.
“If you want to win a championship, you’ve got to like it when it gets dirty and nasty, because that’s the way it gets a lot of times,” Rockets coach Kevin McHale said. “A lot of times, it just becomes a fistfight game where no one can make shots.”
In this fistfight, Houston got key help from Josh Smith (20 points and eight rebounds) and Jones (15 points and five rebounds). With so many preseason predictions focusing on what the Rockets lacked – defense from Harden, depth after Daryl Morey dismantled so much a good team in search of a third star – they had plenty Tuesday.
The Mavericks’ lack of depth, on the other hand, proved decisive.
Their top trade acquisition, Rajon Rondo, was excommunicated. Their top free agent signing, Chandler Parsons, is seriously injured (and so was his backup, Richard Jefferson). And their top scorer, Ellis (25 points), was banged up before finally leaving the game after his collision with Harden.
Dirk Nowitzki needs more help than he got, though his teammates offered as much as they could. Despite a horrendous shooting start from Nowitzki and the Rockets repeatedly putting him in pick-and-rolls he couldn’t defend throughout the series, Dallas competed until the closing moments of the fourth quarter.
“In the end, they had a little more left in the tank, and It was a bit a battle of attrition,” Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said. “But they’re very worthy of advancing. They’re legit. They’ve got a great chance at the whole thing.”